Salvadoran Gang Truce: Opportunities and Risks

By Héctor Silva, CLALS Research Fellow

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

Despite the general agreement that the truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, has lowered the homicide rate dramatically – from 14 killings a day in 2011 to some 5-6 in 2012 – many serious challenges persist. The truce was brokered by a former guerrilla commander and a Catholic bishop and, after two months of denying a government role, Security Minister General David Munguía Payés acknowledged that his office was the mastermind.  It is now entering a second stage in which six municipalities, ruled by both the governing FMLN and the rightist opposition party ARENA, have pledged to join the initiative. This new stage involves local ad hoc prevention plans aimed at gang members’ families and youth at risk. The truces have become the principal security policy of the Funes administration.

The lack of transparency around the planning and implementation – above all the origin of the initial pact –has fueled skepticism among journalists, politicians and the general public, and polling has not shown wide support for the truce.  The United States has become one of the fiercest critics of the initiative, with its first official reaction a few days after Salvadoran electronic news outlet El Faro revealed details in March 2012 of secret negotiations between the gangs and the Salvadoran intelligence service. U.S. Under Secretary of State María Otero, visiting San Salvador, declared that the gangs must disappear, suggesting disapproval of the appeasement implicit in secret talks, and U.S. law enforcement officials have always been privately skeptical.  The Treasury Department is helping local American police departments attack MS13’s financial networks, which some in San Salvador interpret as a political signal of Washington distancing itself from the truce – an ironic twist given that Munguía Payés was installed largely because of U.S. pressure.  The stakes were raised last week when the State Department issued a warning to travelers to El Salvador, expressing for the first time in writing doubts about the truce.

The Salvadoran state and society face a complex road ahead.  The reduction in the homicide rate is, of course, welcome, and opposition to the second stage of the plan, the municipal sanctuaries, will be muted in a preelectoral year.  (The ARENA candidate for President, Norman Quijano, has remained skeptical but seems likely to jump on the bandwagon.) But with its ambiguous public stance on the truce despite its Security Minister’s political commitment, the Funes administration has not pledged to fund the second stage of the truce, and it seems very unlikely that the United States will be stepping in.  Another factor is that while El Salvador´s security operations are constrained by the truce, other important problems – such as extortion, drug trafficking, impunity and corruption – remain untouched. Furthermore, evidence is slowly emerging that the organized crime rings are using the circumstances to expand their influence and take advantage of their relationship with some of the gangs’ most violent cliques to enhance trafficking routes. Washington’s skepticism about the truce is valid and should be followed up with an emphasis on the underlying causes of El Salvador’s ills.

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.